4 February, 1881
During the course of a long life, the greater portion of which has been devoted to the study of Shakespeare and Shakespearean literature, I have fortunately till now been enabled to avoid even the semblance of acrimonious discussion. The annexed correspondence disturbs the immunity hitherto enjoyed, but there is the consolation of knowing that the exception is not induced by any action of my own. In venturing to submit that correspondence to your notice, let me hope that your influence will be given towards the discouragement of the singular kind of language which has originated the present controversy, and which is obviously calculated to bring disgrace and ridicule on Shakespearean criticism.
The useful results of that criticism are, as a rule, so limited and so slowly evolved out of long and tedious discussions, the public at large, who care only for the immortal text, have but a hazy idea of its importance; and there is, therefore, the greater necessity for restoring a healthy tone to those discussions, if studies to which many others beside myself are deeply attached are not to fall altogether in public estimation.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
J. O. HALLIWELL-PHILLIPS
/ p.3 /
/ p.5 /
19, Warwick Crescent, W.,
Jan. 27, '81.
I am sorry indeed to receive your letter of yesterday's date, and doubly sorry that there should have been occasion for your writing it. I never saw the Preface in question, and altogether fail to understand the meaning or relevancy of the language you quote from it. My position with respect to the Society is purely honorary, as I stipulated before accepting it, nor have I been able hitherto to attend any one of its meetings; and should I ever do so, my first impulse will be to invoke the spirit of "gentle Shakespeare" that no wrong be done in his name to a member of the brotherhood of students combining to do him suit and service. Pray believe me,
Yours very respectfully,
J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Esq.
Hollingbury Copse, Brighton,
31st January, 1881.
The receipt of your note of the 27th instant has occasioned me not a little embarrassment. As you are conspicuously advertised as President of the New Shakspere Society in a prospectus now being extensively circulated by the Soceity, it never occurred to me that the dignity was merely nominal. The public can know nothing of this, and hence your eminent name is made use of to give weight to an influence to which the Society is not entitled. The duties attached to the office of Vice-President being, no doubt, equally impalpable, the Members nowhere, and the Committee attenuated, the governing body of the Society resolves itself into what is nearly, if not quite, a case of "dearly beloved Roger and I."
Every person of good feeling will sympathise in your wish that the gentle spirit of Shakespeare should prevail in the New Shakspere Society; but, unless gentleness be permitted to degenerate into submission to any kind of indignity, the generic invocation you suggest will hardly be appropriate to a case where the offence proceeds from an individual source. There has been no provoca- / p.6 / tion from my side; and although this fact may appear to outsiders to be singularly incompatible with the nature of the onslaught to which I have been subjected, the latter will be regarded by others as the outcome, in an exaggerated form, of the indecorous slang which for some years past has thrown ridicule on Shakespearean criticism. In plain-speaking lies the only chance of suppressing what has become an intolerable bore to quiet-loving students. In one of the publications of the Soceity there is something far more objectiona ble even than slang, in the advocacy of extreme political opinions and the admission of scandalously jocular references to the Bible, while in another place there is the scandal of the plays of our national dramatist being allotted out into the unfit-nature group, the tempter-yielding group, the lust-group, the cursing-group, the under-burden-falling group, the false-love group,--all this miserable nonsense appearing under the directorship of the new Shakspere Society.
It is this official connexion with these inconvenient eccentricities that is the gist of the mischief. I should never have dreamt of taking serious notice of anything the Director might choose to say respecting myself, so long as it was uttered strictly in his individual capacity. There is no harm in anyone forming a book-club, calling it a Society, making himself the Director, and coaxing Prince Leopold and other distinguished personages to support his position by joining the most wonderful list of Vice-Presidents ever seen outside the announcement of a cottage-garden flower-show. This is a matter that chiefly affects the individuals whose names are thus grotesquely paraded, and, so far, it is no manner of consequence whether the Director makes the Society or the Society makes the Director, the same effect being produced from either cause. But when the public are blinded to the real nature of the Society, and dazzled by the apparently elective and sympathetic influence conferred on the Director, then there arises a very serious objection when that influence is used for the dissemination of personal antipathies.
As to the offensive language of which I have specially complained, it cannot be palliated by any extent of friendly advocation. It is a resuscitation of the coarseness of Swift without his humour. Only fancy the editor of one newspaper accusing the editor of another of writing his leaders with the prongs of a dung-fork inked in a pigsbrook! Fortunately no such journal can be discovered, at least in this country, or if one did appear that indulged in such ribaldry, we should have to engage a detective to search the low pot-houses for a copy. One would have thought that the Committee, instead of / p.7 / moving a technical objection, would have been anxious to have repudiated even an indirect association with the use of the reeking imagery derived from mixens and pigstyes. Perhaps, however, my appeal was heard solely by the "I," unassisted even by the counsels of "dearly-beloved Roger."
I had hoped to have been spared the necessity of publishing this correspondence by the decisive action of either yourself or the Committee in a case so detrimental to the best interests of all concerned in the pursuit of Shakespearean studies. You will, however, see that under the circumstances I have in self-defence no other alternative.
I am, Dear Sir,
Yours very respectfully,
J. O. HALLIWELL-PHILLIPPS.
To Robert Browning, Esq.,
President of the New Shakspere Society.